Single Moms' Guide to Dating
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Single Moms' Guide to Dating

Stepping into the singles scene again after years of marriage and a focus on child rearing is many women's idea of a nightmare. Here, survival stories and smart advice from the front lines.

Dismal Scene?

Before getting back into the dating game, Kris Brown, a 39-year-old recently divorced mother of a 3-year-old, took her time preparing and primping. She lost weight, got in shape, updated her look. And on one of her first ventures out into the singles scene -- at a speed-dating party where women spend a few minutes in rapid succession chatting with dozens of eligible men -- she actually met someone she thought she liked. "I e-mailed him, but he never responded," Brown says. "So I looked up his profile. He said he was only interested in younger, childless women. Apparently, from his point of view, I'm just some old lady with a kid."

As Brown and thousands of other newly single mothers across the country are finding, re-entering the dating scene can be downright depressing. And difficult, too. Factor in the heartbreak of divorce, the responsibility of raising children, the demands of a full-time job, the intricacies of negotiating a relationship with an ex-husband (more of whom have joint custody), and the hunt for a Friday-night babysitter, and it's enough to make any single mother opt to watch SpongeBob SquarePants videos with her kids rather than even entertain the prospect of sharing a martini with Mr. Maybe.

But not all is dark and dismal. In fact, many recently single moms are finding their new status happily liberating. For one thing, divorce doesn't carry quite the stigma it did in previous generations; women no longer feel they have to have a husband to legitimize their role as a mother. Second, because more divorced moms have careers and interests beyond their family, there's no longer a strong imperative to fill what used to be a gaping hole in their lives where their husbands once were.

Some 10 million households are headed by single mothers, up from 3 million 30 years ago. Clearly these households have become a permanent fixture among American families. As a result, the common perception of divorced moms -- desperate women anxious to find a new daddy for their kids -- has also changed. Today's divorcees are much more interested in reconstructing their own lives first. And because the modern divorced mom doesn't need to find a man, when she chooses to do so, she can do it on her own terms.

Single Moms Stats

  • Nearly 75 percent of divorced moms with kids at home are between the ages of 25 and 44.
  • The more children a divorced mother has (1.8 million divorced mothers have one child, 1.1 million have two, and half a million have three or more kids under 18 living at home), the less likely she is to remarry.
  • An estimated 75 percent of remarriages begin with cohabitation, compared with about 60 percent of first marriages.

Getting Out There

Even if more divorced women ease into the dating pool rather than jump in with two feet, the fact remains that the majority of them will eventually remarry, most within three years of their divorce. But no matter how long it takes them to feel ready to date again, once they do, all women face similar hurdles. Divorced moms need to negotiate three major areas before they start dating again, says Martine Byer, a therapist in New York City and coauthor of Sex & the Single Parent (Perigee, 2002). First is pacing: When do you begin dating, and how do you fold someone special into your life? Next is balance: How do you weigh your needs versus those of your children? There's also the question of boundaries: How much information should you give your child about your dating life? In addition to the major issues, the "smaller" pragmatic hurdles to dating as a mom can be formidable. "The biggest issue for divorced moms is time," says sociologist Pepper Schwartz, of Seattle, herself a divorced -- and dating -- mom. "They put work, children, and everyone else's time before their own, and that leaves little room for a social life. Plus, especially if they have a bad relationship with their ex, there's the difficulty of coordinating custody schedules. The idea of a spontaneous date goes right out the window."

On the upside, many divorced and dating moms say they feel more confident the second time around. They're not as eager to prove that they can get married or that someone will love them. And they already know that they have the strength and abilities to be a good parent. While some want to remarry and have more children, most say they're happy with the number of kids they already have and can date without worrying about their biological clock. That old sense of urgency is replaced by the freedom to choose. And some, particularly those emerging from a bad marriage, simply enjoy the fun of being single. Susan Newman, a social psychologist at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, says that in her experience, divorced mothers who date are happier, calmer, and less frustrated than other unmarried women.

And Boyfriend Makes Three

Moms may be happier daters than non-parents, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're busier at it. After all, a child is not exactly a man magnet. "When I meet men, they may be attracted to me, but 90 percent of the time when they find out I have a kid, I hit a brick wall," says Beth Jann, a 32-year-old apartment-building manager from Dunwoody, Georgia. "There have been occasions when a guy has asked me out, but when I tell him about my child, it becomes a courtesy date," she says. "They've already asked me, so they don't want to back off right away. But I never hear from them again." Other men assume that a young divorced mother is desperate for affection and attention, and take advantage of the assumption that "other guys" may not be as interested in her as they are in younger, never-married women. "So many guys just assume I'm an easy date because I'm desperate for love," Jann laments.

It's true that some guys will see a divorced mom as a simple sexual conquest, cautions Judith Wallerstein, PhD, author of What About the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During, and After Divorce (Hyperion, 2003). "There are a whole lot of guys out there who think that because you're lonely, you'll be easy to hit on." Wallerstein says divorced moms need to be extra wary that certain kinds of men are not allowed to take advantage. The bottom line, she says, is that "divorced moms need to find out what a man's motives are before becoming involved with him."

Kathy Etz, of Washington, D.C., could have used some warning before she jumped into the singles scene. The 37-year-old separated mom of a 3-year-old son can tick off a list of disaster dates. There was the guy she went out with once who then proceeded to call her at 2 a.m. (Hello?!), and the man who told her at the end of their first outing, "I'm not freaked out that you're a mom. Really, I'm not!" There was also the 38-year-old (now ex) boyfriend who nicknamed her Hottie Mama and said she was like "instant family -- just add water."

There's no doubt that some men, especially those who have never had kids, can be turned off when they come up against the diapers-and-daycare reality of a single mom's daily life. "The kind of man I want to date needs to be comfortable doing boring parental-type things, like taking my son to Chuck E. Cheese's," says Jann. "I can't just drop everything for a spur-of-the-moment Tuesday night date, and guys often don't understand that." For most women, being a mother is their clear priority.

"Being a divorced mom and single woman is like having a split personality," agrees Jill Neal, a 33-year-old paralegal from Perry Hall, Maryland. A good 90 percent of the time she's "the mom" and her priority is her 5-year-old daughter. The other 10 percent, when she's on a date or doing something in the interest of getting one, Neal feels like she did in her 20s. "At first, I felt guilty because I'd be out on a date or at a party, and realize, 'Wow, I'm out here having fun.' It felt weird being a mom and dating at the same time," says Neal. "But I realized I'm a person, not just a mom. And dating gives me back the self-confidence my divorce robbed from me -- big time."

Timing Is All

For Neal, the challenge hasn't been finding men. Between friends and kindred soccer fans she meets through the two local teams she plays on, "Everyone was trying to match me up with eligible men," says Neal, who is now involved in a serious relationship. "But I was in no rush to find a husband. I was finally focused on my needs, my career, and my friends and family, and it was a good place to be."

What she has rushed in the past -- and regrets -- is bringing a boyfriend into the picture too soon. Shortly after Neal's divorce in 2002, she got so serious about one man that she introduced him to her daughter just after the six-month mark. "I thought, Wow, I'm going to marry this guy," Neal recalls. When things didn't work out several months later, her daughter asked what had happened to the old boyfriend and why he no longer came around, which pained Neal greatly. "It's a Catch-22. You want things to feel serious enough with a man for you to introduce him to your child. The fact is, he can't know who you are as a person until he knows you as a mother. But you don't want to introduce your child to men with whom you have no future." Neal's new boyfriend, whom she has been dating about 8 months, has met her daughter, but "I waited till it felt right; I've found that it's different with every person and every relationship."

And there are other reasons to be cautious about exposing your kids to your men, and vice versa. When 34-year-old Monica Landers got divorced, her son Charlie was only 12 months old. At first, she let dates meet Charlie early on, accompanying the two of them to the park or dropping by their Austin, Texas, home. "I quickly realized that was a bad idea," she says. "Non-fathers felt like they had to show off their parenting abilities. One guy corrected Charlie's way of reading, which I thought was totally inappropriate. After that, I realized that those situations forced us into this pretend 'playing house' scenario -- not the best way to date."

A Man for Mom

Men may say that they are fine with dating divorced moms -- according to, of the 2.5 million male members on their Web site, 62 percent of them indicate they are open to dating a mother with kids at home, and 78 percent say they would date a woman who has been divorced -- but in practice many never-married men are still uncomfortable with the idea.

When Jonathan Maggio, a 30-year-old firefighter, started seeing Michelle Magee, 33, he was ill at ease with her single-mom status. "It was very hard for him," recalls Magee, who runs her family's delicatessen in Norwalk, Connecticut. She had been attracted to Maggio, who came in as a customer while she was still married. But she didn't start seeing him until her divorce was finalized. Even then, they proceeded cautiously. Still very much the single guy, Maggio wasn't used to making plans around a child's schedule. So the couple mostly saw each other when Magee's son, Billy, was with his father. Ultimately and ironically, says Magee, her status as a divorced mom is what proved attractive to Maggio. "I think he liked that I wasn't running around," she explains. "He knew that family was important to me and that I had responsibilities. He liked that I was very stable."

But having navigated that impasse, the couple then braced for the prospect of encountering another: Maggio's parents. Says Magee, "As a divorced mother, I worried they'd pass judgment on me. Luckily, that wasn't their reaction at all." She also worried about how Billy would feel about Maggio coming into their lives. "I didn't want to throw them at each other," Magee says. She tried not to force the two to hang out together all the time, instead allowing them to ease into a relationship with each other on their own terms. "But it was very important they build a strong bond. Billy's dad is still in the picture, but Jon is a major presence too." Despite hitting some rough patches along the way, their story has a happy ending. The couple got engaged last June and were married in May.

By far the most welcoming group of all is single dads. Just ask Jeanine Moss, 49, who on her commute into New York City every day would eye the handsome dad who offered his seat to her daughter, whom Moss was taking to school. "I was really attracted to Avi not only because he was cute, but because his 7-year-old daughter had a different hairdo every day. I felt lucky if I got my daughter's hair brushed every day! I thought, How does he do it? I was completely impressed."

One day, Avi gave up his coveted window seat to her daughter, Josephine, and Moss and Avi started to talk. They got to know each other during their daily commutes, sometimes falling into heated political arguments (she's a Democrat; he's a Republican). Eventually, when Moss's work schedule changed, Avi agreed to accompany Josephine to school in Moss's stead. "It's absolutely easier to date another single parent," says Moss, now engaged to marry Avi this spring. "They understand the conflicts and compromises. They know kids need to be shown they're No. 1 -- and they don't get offended by that." And, she explains, they approach dating in the same pragmatic way divorced mothers do. "On our first date, Avi sat down and laid out everything. He said, 'I'm divorced, I've got two kids, I definitely want to remarry someday.' Dating him was less a process of discovery, more about revealing hard-earned self-knowledge. I appreciated that."

For Monica Landers, that sure sense of shared priorities clinched the deal the second time around. At a birthday party for one of 2-year-old Charlie's friends, she met Chris, then 39, the divorced father of Kaitlin, another 2-year-old. As she was leaving, Chris asked her out for coffee, which she rescheduled to lunch, to better accommodate her work and home demands. "We soon realized that between our dueling custody schedules, we only had one night free per month in common," Landers recalls. "So there were a lot of lunches." Eventually, the two decided to sync their online Yahoo! calendars to find mutual free time. "It took a bit of the romance out of courtship," says Landers, laughing. "But it also eliminated the 'Is he going to call?' worry." Two years of juggling later, the couple realized they had to break up or commit completely. They chose the latter and were married last year.

Making the Introduction

One of the most common mistakes divorced moms make is integrating their love and family lives too soon, says Susan Newman of Rutgers. Speed may have disastrous effects. Before you plan a meeting, keep the following in mind:

  • Follow the "only when necessary" rule. "Only when you seriously think this man may be a keeper should you introduce him to your kids," says Martine Byer. Children who become attached to your boyfriend may feel abandoned if and when the relationship ends, which, following the pain of loss in divorce, can be especially difficult.
  • Don't talk too soon. Tina Tessina, PhD, a psychotherapist in Long Beach, California, advises moms to share as little as possible about their dating life with their children. "Men should be introduced first as friends of the family; otherwise, you set the child up to get angry or jealous, which can lead him or her to act out or rebel."
  • Act age appropriately. With younger children, it's important to wait before introducing a new beau. "Little kids often don't understand what dating means," says Sheila Ellison, author of The Courage to Love Again (Harper, 2002). While there's no set timetable for when you should introduce a child of X age and after X amount of time, bear in mind how your child might perceive the situation based on his likely understanding of relationships at that age, says Ellison. A younger child may be confused about whether this is a new "daddy" or if his mommy is being taken away from him, while an older child will more readily understand that mothers need friendships outside the family.